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You'll Never Believe What They Fry at the Texas State Fair

You'll Never Believe What They Fry at the Texas State Fair

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They say that the best cultural experiences can be found in your own backyard, and there is no better place to get a strong dose of the deep South than the Texas State Fair.

The Texas State Fair claims to draw its origins back to January 30, 1886, when a group of business men formed the Dallas State Fair and Exhibition. From the cowboy boots to drawling accents to the collection of livestock on show, it’s been a whirlwind of activity that brings together the far-reaching peoples that populate this massive state.

You'll Never Believe What They Fry at the Texas State Fair (Slideshow)

The Texas State Fair also brings together a combination of ingredients and dishes with thick, golden oil in a deep-fried fantasy that only Texans could think up and devour with pleasure.

There is no denying that we all love fried dishes — just think back to the last fight over who got the crunchiest French fry in a dish shared amongst friends and family. There is so much joy that comes from the crunch with every bite into fried [insert favorite food here], and the juices that ooze out give our mouths and palates a delightful surprise. Fried calamari, fried chicken, and fried fish — these are just some staples that many have come to know and love around the country and the world.

Of course, Texas has added a new layer to all things fried.

In 2005, the Texas State Fair launched its first Big Tex Choice Awards with the challenge for concessionaries to create new and unique food items — and that they did. The Texas State Fair has become a pilgrimage for all things fried food, earning itself the title as the Fried Food Capital of Texas.

Texas has fried up a monstrosity of items that make fried butter seem more normal than ever. Over the years the state fair has seen concessionaries fry sandwiches, whole dinners, frozen drinks — you name it, it’s been fried, all in the name of creativity, ingenuity, and culinary advancement.

Yet the chefs of the South manage to set the bar higher each year, graduating to a level where they fry things you might think were un-friable (think liquids) and are so outlandish that you would exercise your YOLO rights to the utmost extreme just to get a taste.

If the past eight years of fried food frenzy are anything to go by, then the 2014 Texas State Fair, which will be held from September 28th to October 19th in Dallas, is something to look forward to.

We recommend at least a couple of days of fasting to prepare — and, of course, familiarizing yourself with the craziest foods ever fried in the Texas State Fair’s history.

Fried Bacon Cinnamon Roll — 2012

I think we all can agree that the world would have done just fine without a fried bacon cinnamon roll, but Texas must have thought otherwise. This deep-fried cinnamon roll dipped in a sweet pancake batter, rolled in crispy fried bacon crumbles, deep fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar was featured at the Texas State Fair in 2012. Careful. You gained 50 pounds just by reading this.

Fried Jambalaya — 2012

No, we’re not-a-lyin’. This Fried Jambalaya at the 2012 Texas State Fair was made from scratch using shrimp, Cajun sausage, and a sprinkling of other seasonings. The year’s most creative dish, Fried Jambalaya is something that could only be done right down South.

Alexandra E. Petri is the travel editor at The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @writewayaround

The Crazy Fried Food You Shouldn't Ignore This Summer

It's easy to go deep-fried blind at the fair&mdashand not just in a literal sense from all of the sugar and grease. When every stand touts half a dozen (or more) batter-dipped treats, it can be hard to figure out which ones are worth the minutes of your life.

Brian "the Deep-Fry Guy" Shenkman knows your struggle all too well. In fact, he's part of the reason why you can't make up your mind&mdashhe sells dozens of deep-fried treats. At eight fairs nationwide, people head to his stand to dare their friends to try fried cream-cheese larvets&mdashyup, crispy larvae rolled in cream cheese balls&mdashor grab a deep-fried Milky Way, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or the perennial favorite, deep-fried Oreos.

As epic as the Oreos are&mdashthey basically turn into a molten, cookies-and-creme-flavored dough in the center of a pancake-like fried ball&mdashShenkman says people rank it second-best once they try his Deep-Fried Buckeyes. They just have to be sold on what a Buckeye is first.

"We've started putting up signs that explain that it's basically a peanut butter dough ball dipped in chocolate, then batter-dipped and fried, because the name alone freaked people out," he said, as he pulled out five Oreos and five Buckeyes to treat us to a side-by-side taste test.

In Ohio, the Buckeye State, he sold 52,000 in one week&mdashcompared to 8,000 at the State Fair Meadowlands, where we met while I was scouring the grounds for the top carnival foods to try. Outside of Ohio, the Buckeye tends to be completely overlooked.

"When I came up with the idea, I called up the Ohio State Fair and asked if I could do it. I didn't hear back, so I thought they didn't take me seriously, and I forgot about it," Shenkman explained while he dipped each Buckeye in a funnel-cake-like batter.

About a week before the fair opened, officials came calling: Word had spread about the deep-fried Buckeyes, and they couldn't wait for Shenkman to debut them. The only problem? Since he hadn't heard back, he hadn't tried making them yet.

"The first tests were crazy. When I dipped the Buckeyes into the fryer, some were falling apart, some exploded," he said. "You want them to float, like these are."

He came up with a successful formula just in time for the Ohio State Fair nine years ago&mdashand he's been the fair's exclusive Deep-Fried Buckeye vendor ever since, with five stands spread out across its grounds to keep up with demand.

Once the battered Buckeyes and Oreos have become lightly golden, Shenkman pulls them from the fryer and dusts them with a liberal coating of powdered sugar.

Shenkman tries to introduce something new every year, though he says he'll probably slow down now that his other stand at the fair&mdashthe Bulk Candy Store, which sells 4,000 kinds of niche, hard-to-find sweets, like Purple Violets and caramel-cream Bullseyes&mdashhas become his main business.

"I bring 60,000 pounds of candy to each fair," he says. Many of the candies are also batter-dipped and deep-fried to see if they're worthy of being added to his menu. Many have failed&mdashhe shook his head as he recalls the neon gummy worms, which essentially dissolved when cooked.

"In the off-season, I set up a row of deep fryers and instituted 'Fry-Days,' where we went to the supermarket and grabbed anything we could find and tried deep-frying it," he said. The cream-cheese larvets were a more recent addition, though they weren't so much a Fry-Day Friday experiment as they were a challenge from Food Network's Carnival Eats to create something truly eye-catching.

"They definitely get people's attention," Shenkman said.

Turning back to the fried Buckeyes and Oreos, Shenkman added one final&mdashyet crucial&mdashtouch: A drizzle of Hershey's chocolate sauce on top of each.

As much as we love all things Oreo (and these pillowy bombs of gooey Oreo deliciousness took our obsession to the next level), we had to agree: The Buckeyes were one part cookie dough, one part melted Reese's Cup, one part gift from above.

"You see?" he asked, when I reached for a second Buckeye&mdashthe only confirmation he needed to know that the peanut-butter-chocolate-orb had stolen my heart. His voice suddenly dropped to a conspiratorial whisper: "One person who tried it said it was better than sex."

The State Fair of Texas Is Opening a Drive-thru

In years past, the news that you could buy a Fletcher’s Corny Dog without leaving your car would be just okay. Good, I guess, if you’re extremely into convenience and fried food. But in a normal year, the thought of driving to Fair Park to get a corny dog and some deep-fried Oreos without ever even getting out of the car would not make most of us unexpectedly emotional.

This is not a normal year, though, and when the State Fair of Texas announced on Wednesday that it will be offering some of the deep-fried hits of the festival’s food booths to visitors on a drive-thru basis, emotional it was. Like pretty much every other large-scale social event in America, the State Fair was canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, making 2020 the first year since World War II in which North Texas’s signature fall gathering would not occur. Alas, this year there would be no chainsaw carving, no slam-dunk exhibitions, no vegan sculptors crafting Mount Rushmore out of butter, and no Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burgers. This year, Big Tex would not wave from on high at the revelers gathered there to celebrate being alive together under the Texas sun (and also deep-fried junk food).

That is, he wouldn’t be doing that until the State Fair of Texas announced that it would be welcoming visitors for a drive-thru version of the festival on weekends from September 25 to October 18. Visitors will purchase their tickets in advance beginning September 2, reserving a two-hour slot during which they can drive through the fair grounds, taking a photo with Big Tex (who’ll be wearing a giant mask, naturally) and receiving an abundance of artery-clogging delights: Fletcher’s Corny Dogs, Stiffler’s Fried Oreos, french fries, cotton candy, and kettle corn, plus soft drinks. Tickets cost $65 for a two-person package, and $99 for enough food to feed four. (Prices are per vehicle, each of which can hold up to eight people, per State Fair of Texas rules—the tickets simply reflect how much food you’ll receive.)

The wilder, more adventurous creations for which culinary fabulists are rightly celebrated each year, unfortunately, won’t be on display. “While we wish we could offer all your favorite Fair foods, the health and safety of all involved remains the top priority,” the event’s website explains. This is more of a greatest-hits collection, with turkey legs and sausage sticks available a la carte for an additional fee. But that feels right in 2020, a year in which we’ve lost access to so many of the rituals we’ve developed to remind ourselves of what life can look like when it’s good. These brief flashes that conjure the feeling of normal life are about familiarity, not novelty, and we would prefer to find ourselves unexpectedly weeping while eating a corn dog on a stick than while trying to figure out whatever the heck “Cherish Erbert Champagne” is. Call us traditionalists, if you must.

The professionally taken photos, included in the food packages, of families posing with a masked Big Tex waving down from on high will be an unusual souvenir for most who make attending the Texas State Fair part of an annual ritual. But this is an unusual year, and the attempt to capture some of the spirit of the event in a way that keeps visitors and the wider community safe and healthy feels right—maybe even inspiring. Big Tex, after all, rose like the phoenix of myth from his own funeral pyre just a few years ago, and when he looms over fairgoers now, he is a totem to rebirth. That resilience is on display throughout the State Fair this year, such as it is, and that is why the thought of safely enjoying fried Oreos in the midst of a pandemic is surprisingly emotional. This is Texas, and we will find a way to persevere, adapt, overcome, and drive through.

I Believe I Can Fry

How a mild-mannered database analyst became the undisputed king of the Fair Park fryers—and the master of a heart-stopping new culinary movement.

A bel Gonzales Jr., age forty, is the high priest of frying at the State Fair of Texas, which is to say, the world. Since 2005, when the fair introduced the Big Tex Choice Awards, a kind of Oscars for excellence in frying, four of the little statuettes have gone to him. He has fried Coca-Cola and cookie dough and pineapple rings, among other offerings that profit dentists. Followers taste his commitment and reciprocate with enthusiasm. It is not unheard of to see groups of girls screaming as he walks through the fairgrounds. A few years back, a couple found his talents so moving that they asked him to officiate their wedding. Once, a devoted fan requested that the master deep-fry his vinyl wallet. After Gonzales reluctantly complied, the young man looked at his girl and, in what must have been a serious turning point in their relationship, held the crispy billfold in the air and whooped.

Since the advent of the Big Tex Choice Awards, extreme frying has become a seasonal rite. Every fall, the crowds venture out of the comfort of the air-conditioning, drawn by the hiss of the Fair Park fryers. Media outlets rack their brains for puns, such as “Come Fry With Me” (the Economist) and “It’s Oil or Nothing” (Dallas Morning News). The past few years, a good deal of their attention has also focused on Gonzales. From television (Oprah, Today) to the farthest corners of the blogosphere, Gonzales’s work has been featured and dissected. Andrew Zimmern, the host of the popular Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods, declared him “the Willy Wonka of the Texas State Fair.” Oprah simply referred to him as a “guru.”

I met Gonzales in March at his temporary test kitchen in the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, in Dallas. He would not share with me his concept for this year (the judging is on Labor Day), but he had agreed to cook for me what many people consider to be his masterpiece: fried butter, which won last year’s Big Tex award for most creative food. For a man about to place frozen balls of dough-wrapped butter into a vat of oil, Gonzales was surprisingly trim, with only full, dimpled cheeks attesting to his occasionally unhealthy diet. A Vandyke beard and jumpy, expressive eyebrows gave him a mischievous appearance. That day, he wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a classic white chef’s jacket that he was quick to downplay. “I’m not a chef. This whole coat thing really makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “I wear them a lot because I’m in the kitchen and blah, blah, blah. But I’m not a chef. You know, I never claimed to be a chef.”

Since he works only during the three-week duration of the fair (this year it runs from September 24 to October 17) and takes off the rest of the year to travel and hang out at home with his dog, the best way to describe Gonzales’s professional life is to say that he’s a “concessionaire,” though the term undersells him the way “band” does the Beatles. His imagination never rests. Three years ago, for example, a beer distribution company asked him to concoct a deep-fried beer. He was able to turn the product around quickly and easily, and even if he didn’t see a market for the result, the commission did get him thinking about beer. Over a six-month period, he experimented and came up with a potato chip that tasted like beer. “I soaked kettle chips in this beer solution, and then I fried them,” he said. “When they come out of the fryer, they’re really crisp, and I use the salt-and-beer-flavoring mixture to spread on top.” And he didn’t stop there. “I was really going crazy at the time, pushing the envelope,” he told me. “I made a one-ounce liquid that, when poured into a beer, would completely change the taste of the beer. So you could start out with Coors Light, pour this one-ounce shot into it, and it would turn into a piña colada, a margarita, a cosmopolitan, whatever. It would remain fizzy, but the whole taste complex would completely change. You take a creamy beer like Guinness or Negra Modelo, and the root beer shot made it out of this world.” One can argue the merits of these concoctions, but the fact is that all of Gonzales’s creations sound pretty gross at first. They must be tasted to be judged.

Gonzales lifted the fry basket out of the oil, tossed the five balls of dough on a plate, drizzled them with honey, and dusted them with powdered sugar, coaching me all the while in the ways to avoid a squirting mess. He waited a few seconds as they cooled, then dived in, motioning for me to hurry. I popped one, bracing myself for a coating of grease followed by a mushy, slightly salty lard ball. Instead, it was the most majestic breadstuff I’d ever eaten, sweet, then doughy, then warm, with a twist at the end: a tiny pat of butter, just barely starting to melt, like an opiate at the center of the world’s most scandalous doughnut.

The process of cooking food in hot fat is only slightly less ancient than roasting a carcass on an outdoor fire. The Egyptians used goose, pork, and beef fat for frying. Arabian cooks preferred the unique flavor of sheep’s tail fat. Worldwide, the victuals endorsed for submersion varied, but the general tenet down through the ages seemed to be that just about anything was better cooked in oil. (Jerry Hopkins, the author of Extreme Cuisine: The Weird and Wonderful Foods That People Eat, suggests that rats rubbed with garlic, salt, and pepper and then dunked in hot vegetable oil for six to seven minutes are, if not delicious, at least edible.)

But deep-frying didn’t find its ideal showcase until the fair phenomenon caught on in America in the late-nineteenth century. Fair cookery was a way for inventive American cooks to demonstrate creativity and resourcefulness. An exhibit of an immense pumpkin or an eleven-ton wheel of cheese was impressive to look at but ultimately invited a very practical question: How do you eat it? According to Warren Belasco in Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, cooking contests arose as a solution. They were also a way of celebrating the great abundance of American farms, a kind of culinary brag. Popular demonstrations riffed on American staples such as corn, a grain that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair featured in three hundred preparations, including cream of cornstarch pudding, hominy Florentine, pilau, Brunswick stew, mush croquettes, cream pie, Boston bread, Victorian corn gems, and corn dodgers.

Unfortunately for those present, the selection did not include a hot dog dipped in cornmeal batter and deep-fried. That future treasure of the fair circuit would belong to Carl and Neil Fletcher, brothers who came to Dallas in 1930 and decided to augment their income as vaudevillians by inventing the “corny dog,” made famous at the 1942 state fair. “We have heard some fellow had used a mold to put cornbread around a wiener, but that was too slow,” Neil told the New York Times in an interview in 1983. “So my brother started thinking and said, ‘Why not mix a batter that would stay on a weenie?’ So we started experimenting in the kitchen and finally came up with a batter that would stay on. It tasted like hell. When we got one that tasted okay it wouldn’t stay on the weenie. We must have tried about sixty times until we got one that was right, and we spent another twelve years improving it. We haven’t touched it since.”

The corny dog is unquestionably the finest concession ever created in the state of Texas. Though both Fletcher brothers have since died, the fortunate Fletcher descendants who now run the business sell about half a million of their inventions during the run of the fair. Corny dogs routinely outsell all other fair foods, such as funnel cakes, nachos, turkey legs, sausage on a stick, roasted corn, cotton candy, and anything else dispensed from the roughly two hundred food booths and carts at the state fair. Around eighty vendors control these concessions, which are leased on a year-to-year basis and often held onto fiercely by a family (like the Fletchers) for generations. Lots of luck to the outsider who wants in. Hundreds of applicants fight for the two or three locations that become available each year.

For decades the Fletcher brothers’ awe-inspiring invention did not attract any challengers from the other sellers. That all changed in 2005.“You always want to have some things new and different at the fair,” explained Ron Black, the fair’s senior vice president of food and beverage. “New cars, new shows, new booths.” Apparently while visitors still looked forward to their annual gastronomic overload, even the most charitable confessed that their encounters had grown stale. So Black and his people devised a contest designed to prod the concessionaires’ imaginations: the Big Tex Choice Awards. The process would begin with a letter sent to all State Fair of Texas concessionaires, inviting them to mail in a description of a new and audacious dish. Next, a committee of anonymous judges would wade through the submissions and choose the finalists. Finally, on Labor Day, the fair would host a big tasting, with three or four judges rating the dishes on a scale of one to ten in two categories: Best Taste and Most Creative. Winners would be awarded a golden statuette, the body resembling an Academy Award, the head a bobbling likeness of Big Tex.

As a result, the past five years have been a kind of golden age for our state fair concessionaires. Since the gauntlet was thrown down, complacency has been replaced by an extreme-sport version of frying: Witness the Fried Banana Split, the Crispy Fried Cantaloupe Pie, the Zesty Fried Guacamole Bites, the Country-Fried Peach Cobbler on a Stick, the Fernie’s Fried Mac ’n Cheese, the Fried Praline Perfection, and the Fried Italian Meatballs.

It may be that the Big Tex Choice Awards simply awakened a killer esprit d’fry lurking in the genes of the concessionaire population. Gonzales’s two biggest challengers, Christi Erpillo and Nick Bert Jr., are both from fair families. Erpillo’s mother was the first person to bring funnel cake to the Texas fair, in 1980. (“Abel, my mother, and Skip Fletcher [the owner and president of the state fair’s corny dog stands] are all Woodrow Wilson High School graduates,” she told me meaningfully.) Bert, who has been a Dallas County sheriff’s deputy for 27 years, is the grandson of Samuel Bert, the inventor of the snow cone machine. These people were raised around fair food 350-degree oil pulsed in their veins.

Gonzales is not like them, not exactly. His introduction to the miraculous powers of a fryer did come by way of his father, but not in a booth. Abel “A. J.” Gonzales Sr. owned A. J. Gonzales’ Mexican Oven, a successful eatery in Dallas’s historic West End. The business required the customary grueling hours. “My father was busy all the time. My mother worked nights. So actually my grandmother pretty much took care of us,” he said. The family had just a few days off each year, to attend the state fair. They were freakishly loyal about this tradition. “We are a fair family,” Gonzales explained. “We were the kind of kids who used to get new outfits for the fair. I mean, it was a big deal for us.” He has never missed a fair and says he would never even consider it. Gonzales was born in November 1969 and has been to every fair since then. It is safe to assume that had he been born in October 1969, he would have made it to that year’s fair as well.

By the time he had his own booth, Gonzales was familiar enough with the traditional fair menu that he felt himself an expert by proxy, but his outlier’s confidence led to strange gastronomic experiments. One of his favorite creations, used to top off a deep-fried pineapple ring, is banana-flavored whipped cream dipped in liquid nitrogen. One bite and you can literally blow smoke through your nose. “My thing is something new, something that nobody’s done before,” Gonzales said. He is aware that this philosophy has made him something of a novelty himself. “I would think a chef would look at me and kind of go, ‘Pfft, move on with your little fried self,’ ” he said.

He’s right. The search for the next corny dog probably would not fulfill the romantic dreams of a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. But many would kill for a concessionaire’s profits. For each $4 or $5 item, Gonzales pays the fair a 25 percent share. After he subtracts taxes, staff wages, and supplies, his most successful items leave him with a profit of about $1 per plate. Now consider that in the three-week run of the fair he can sell about 10,000 orders on a Saturday and 5,000 to 7,000 on a weekday. “People always go, ‘You must be making a million at the fair,’ ” he said. “Honestly, I am not. I make enough money so I don’t have to work the rest of the year, but if I had kids or a wife, there’s no way I could get away with that.” Having your creation declared a finalist can increase business by 30 percent a winner can increase his initial figures at least six times over. In 2009, after winning the award, Gonzales sold about 35,000 orders of fried butter, or 140,000 total balls.

If you have never deep-fried anything in your life, you may be thinking at this point, “How hard can it be?” Anyone can stick food in a fryer. But consider: It took the Fletcher brothers sixty attempts to produce a batter that tasted good and stayed on the weenie. Mastering the science of frying requires know-how, but to go further and create a memorable state fair food, one has to have an artist’s inspiration. The right balance must be struck between novelty and flavor.

No wonder then that secrecy abounds. Participants contacted for this article were evasive about their future endeavors. Ideas like fried jelly beans and fried Pop Rocks do not fall from the sky, and they can be quickly appropriated. “Other fairs are following our lead,” Erpillo explained. “Last year I won Best Taste for Fernie’s Deep-fried Peaches and Cream on September 7. The Texas fair didn’t open until September twenty-something, but Oklahoma or Kansas was having a fair September 11 and somebody was already knocking us off.” That the R&D can be brutal, burning eyes and skin, only adds to the sense of ownership. Glen Kusak won Best Taste in 2008 for chicken-fried bacon. “We had tried an item that contained a hot dog,” he told me. “The wiener exploded, and it became ugly pretty quick.”

One does have to wonder, however, where the line should be drawn. Milton Whitley, a high school teacher who has been a concessionaire at the state fair for twenty years, told me recently that he had battered and deep-fried mud. “We had it,” he said. “I’ll be honest.” He wanted to change the subject, but I pressed him for details. He continued to dodge. I wondered if he was pulling my leg, until I became aware that he had an entirely different reason for hesitating. “I’m going to get myself in trouble for bringing that up,” he said. “I think that’s my ace in the hole this year.”

How rare is the moment when the person who is drifting is overcome with a sense of purpose? The sudden obsession could be anything—hairstyling, doll manufacturing, bass fishing. One morning he wakes up and says, “That’s what I need to do.” This is possibly the most important milestone in anyone’s life, but it sometimes takes years for the revelation—if it happens at all. Like many offspring of restaurateurs, Gonzales first entered the family business as an unenthusiastic dishwasher, in his case as punishment for bad behavior and bad grades. “The first time I worked in the restaurant I couldn’t even reach the sink to wash dishes—I remember that,” he said. “It was really embarrassing, because everybody knew why I was there: I was in trouble.” In time, he graduated to prep chef, then cook, then manager. But the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week responsibility of a restaurant was not appealing. “I am way too lazy for anything like that,” he said. Instead, when he was in his early twenties, he followed the gravitational pull of the nineties dot-com boom and landed a job at a direct-mail marketing company. He started off in the warehouse, driving around pallets of paper. Later, he became a machine operator, and eventually he worked his way up to programmer and database analyst, a position he held for more than a decade.

This profession, he discovered, was only slightly better than washing dishes. “It was very boring. I was behind a desk in a cube,” he said. “I would write programs all day long and surf the Net and talk on the phone and take lunches—really nine-to-five, like the movie Office Space. We had Hawaiian shirt day, casual Fridays, happy hour.” He’s able to laugh about it for about as long as it takes to spit the sentences out, then he’d rather move on. “That was a rough time in my life,” he said.

It was in 1999, after losing $20 or $30 on a ring-toss game at the fair, that the notion of actually working there dawned on him. “Gah! That guy is making a fortune just three weeks out of the year doing a goofy little bottle trick!” he said. Gonzales looked into operating a game booth at the fair and discovered that one company ran all the stands. So he tried another angle: concessions.

Three years later he opened his first booth, serving a giant sopaipilla in the shape of Texas, covered in honey, cinnamon, whipped cream, and strawberries. It was an idea adapted from his father’s restaurant, but he used bread dough instead of sopaipilla dough for a more buttery flavor. The reaction was mild. He had to drag customers off the midway like a carnival barker. But even if his initial few seasons at the fair were difficult (his first year he actually lost money), he still dreaded going back to his nine-to-five gig. “I remember the first year, we ended on a Sunday and we were there until three in the morning,” he said. “I was up at seven and was at work at eight. It was terrible. That first week back to work from the fair was awful.”

For a few years he carried on a kind of double life as an office worker and a concessionaire. Gonzales was still living at his parents’ house, even though his parents had moved out in 2000. (“It’s really, really strange,” he says. “I just never left.” ) Then, in 2005, Gonzales returned from a month-long vacation in Egypt and saw in his pile of mail an envelope from the fair. The announcement within stated the rules for the Big Tex competition, as well as a theme: Elvis. “That made me think right away: peanut butter, banana, and jelly sandwich,” he said. Though the deadline had passed, he immediately called the head office and begged them to take a late entry. They did. A day later, he dusted off his home fryer from Target and started to experiment. The product that resulted from his trials was simple and delicious: a standard PB&J sandwich with banana, battered, fried, quartered, and served dusted with powdered sugar. It won the 2005 award for Best Taste.

Each subsequent year, Gonzales tried to outdo himself. In 2006 he won Most Creative for Deep-fried Coke (“Smooth spheres of Coca-Cola-flavored batter are deep-fried, drizzled with pure Coke fountain syrup, topped with whipped cream, cinnamon, sugar, and a cherry” read the fair guide). In 2007 he won Best Taste for Texas Fried Cookie Dough. This was followed by the deep-fried pineapple ring topped with the frozen banana-flavored whipped cream (the only entry of Gonzales’s not to win an award). By the end of 2008, he thought the attention had peaked. “I had been on ABC. I had done interviews in Australia and Argentina,” he said. “I was taking stock of everything and I was going, ‘That was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I’m never gonna have that again.’ ”

Oh, how wrong he was. In 2009 he figured out a way to deep-fry a pat of butter. The concept alone was going to attract people he knew that. But he had no idea how it would take off: Though it has a long way to go to catch up with the corny dog, fried butter can now be found at fairs around the country. “It’s just amazing,” he said. “One night a friend called me up and said, ‘You’re on Letterman’s Top Ten,’ and I was like, ‘No frickin’ way!’ ” (The late-night comedian deadpanned, “This is why the rest of the world hates us,” before launching into his “Top Ten Questions to Ask Yourself Before Eating Fried Butter.”) The money was good, but the real payoff was something unexpected for a concessionaire: fame. “I mean, all of a sudden TV programs like Oprah come to your booth and you’re a star,” he said. “For those three weeks, you’re it.”

At age forty, Abel Gonzales discovered that he had a gift. It wasn’t necessarily deep-frying. It was dreaming up bizarre concepts. “Did you ever watch The Honeymooners?” he asked me. “The whole show revolves around this guy coming up with megamillion ideas, and I swear I’m like him. I come up with all these ideas.” One of his proposals is a thirty-minute TV show starring himself, trying to solve problems in the kitchen like a one-man culinary A-Team. “Hopefully somebody will be interested in buying it,” he said. The show’s conceit summed up what Gonzales hoped would be his legacy: “There’s that idiot. He doesn’t know anything. But he figured it out.”

The day before I met Gonzales at his test kitchen, I’d called to ask if, in addition to specialties like fried butter, he could prepare some experimental items. I wanted to get a sense of the R&D process. Friends had suggested that I have Gonzales fry, among other things, a feather, an origami bird, and a small boot, but he had his own array of challenges in mind. On the large brushed-steel table, he had laid out his ingredients: Aunt Jemima buttermilk pancake mix, a can of Dole fruit cocktail, a bag of powdered sugar, a box of Bisquick, a bag of microwave popcorn, a jar of confection sprinkles, a can of pineapple rings, a whisk, tongs, a skimmer spoon, and a few red mixing bowls. The deep fryer, measuring about two feet by three feet, sat adjacent to a steel industrial stove, heating a vat of oil.

Gonzales is a natural performer. He narrates the frying process with the verve of a cooking-show veteran, complete with humming punctuated by exclamations. One of the first things he fried for me was a fruit cocktail. “Let’s get as much of this excess liquid out as we can,” he said, pushing the lid down. Then he flipped the lid and spooned the contents into a mixing bowl of prepared pancake mix. “Put that in therrrre.” He walked to the fryer and began scooping it in, but almost immediately things went awry. “No—nooo, don’t turn into a blob,” he shouted. “We might have a failure.” He moved the pieces around with a mesh skimmer spoon. “It’s not adhering to the batter,” he said, pulling the unidentifiable brown bits out of the vat and tossing them onto a plate. “I don’t know what happened. We’ll put some powdered sugar on that.” He popped a piece in his mouth and motioned that it was so-so. “Man, I don’t know what kind of fruit I just had.” Cringing, he gave his verdict: “No fried fruit cocktails. Not a success.”

We made our way through the remaining ingredients on the table. We tried the pineapple ring (“Palate cleanser!” he said), the butter, and the popcorn, whose battered kernels withered into flavorless beige blobs. Eventually, he got around to his personal Mount Everest, something so impossible to fry that he hadn’t even laid it out on the table to begin with: lettuce. His kitchen monologue revealed his conflicted emotions about this undertaking. “I love it!” he said as he pulled a plastic box of precut romaine out of the refrigerator. He popped it open and stared at his ingredients. “This is just going to be awful,” he said, shaking his head. “But we’re going all the way.”

The level of difficulty of fried lettuce is pretty high up there, right near a ten. It is novel, for sure. Whether or not it can be good is questionable. And all this is moot if it doesn’t survive the fryer. Anything plunged into 350- to 375-degree oil loses moisture quickly, and a romaine leaf is 95 percent moisture to begin with. The bubbles that you see on the surface of a pot of boiling oil are the water molecules escaping from whatever is being fried. This is how frying works—it sucks away moisture, creating a crispy shell around a (hopefully) juicy center. The starch in a potato gives a french fry sufficient toughness to withstand this experience, one that, needless to say, spells death to a lettuce leaf.

Gonzales’s batter, therefore, had to be perfect to keep the lettuce from going limp. He had selected a Bisquick batter. He tossed the leaves from the salad box into his red mixing bowl and continued his monologue. “This is good, you know? Maybe it’s not going to come out that bad. I try to be optimistic. But I just assume it’s going to be bad until I actually work with it.”

He let the leaves soak in the batter for a moment: “I think this lettuce is going to fall apart on us. I always think that whatever you’re frying is like a little baby, and you have to protect the baby from the heat of that fryer. Some things, some little babies, are just not built—can’t take it. This is what I think when I think of the salad.” (Later on, when I asked Rosana Moreira, a professor in food engineering at Texas A&M, what batter she would suggest for a romaine leaf, she simply responded, “I do not think that is a good idea, do you?”)

As Gonzales tossed a few globs of leaves into the fryer, the oil hissed and an amoeba-shape of bubbles darted for the sides of the vat. He grabbed his spoon and quickly tried to separate the pieces. “I thought for sure it’d go down,” he said. He hesitated. “There is no way this is going to hold up.”

But the lettuce was not wilting. Using the skimmer spoon, Gonzales pulled the fried leaves out of the vat and placed them in a basket on the side of the fryer. A few seconds later, he tossed about eight leaves onto a dinner plate. They looked like flattened, gnarled frogs’ legs. “I’m going to try this little piece,” he said, reaching in. He chewed for about ten seconds, revealing no expression, then looked up. “Not so bad. I mean, it’s not disgusting. I didn’t spit it out.”

I took a piece. The interior was not mushy the stalk and veins had held on to their tough, raw consistency. But unlike eating a lettuce leaf from the garden, this was like lettuce on steroids. Oddly, it had a strong, earthy flavor with an unexpected crunch. Gonzales nodded. “It’s not like, ‘Ooh, it’s great,’ but, yeah, it’s not bad! Let’s see what happens when you finish it off.”

Other cooks might have left well enough alone. They might have moved on to a more viable project. They would have heard the ghosts of generations of fryers saying, “Abel! Stop!” But Gonzales was compulsively interested now, and his muddling had evolved from a defeatist foray into weird food science to a culinary challenge of the highest order. He assembled the finishing touches while discussing the possibilities of an even more robust lettuce or a more ambitious batter, possibly a pesto sauce or an egg wash with bread crumbs or a batter with Italian seasonings that would encase each leaf in its own personal crouton. “It’s just so out-there,” he said. He drizzled Caesar dressing on the dish and sprinkled it with shredded Parmesan cheese. We stared for a moment at what was surely the world’s first deep-fried salad. Then he handed me a fork. At first I couldn’t place the flavor, but as Gonzales started nodding and discussing its actual potential as a major draw, it dawned on me: This was the taste of blasphemy. And it was good.

11 State Fair Foods You Can Make at Home

State fair food immediately conjures images of fried food and things on sticks…and fried things on sticks. Most of the edible wonders encountered at the average fairground are greasy, crispy, and super salty or super sweet (sometimes both). They’re not every-day treats, is what we’re saying—but they’re not out of reach when the carnival’s packed up and left town, either.

Whether you get a corn dog craving mid-winter that those freezer aisle specimens just won’t satisfy, or you’re missing out on your favorite funnel cake during the summer of social distancing, you can recreate all your favorite state fair grub at home with these recipes. Bonus: There’s a lot of overlap with boardwalk food faves too (but saltwater taffy and fudge are in their own categories).

You won’t have to break out the deep fryer for all of these, but if there was ever a time to invest in one, it’s now.

Presto FryDaddy Electric Deep Fryer, $31.99 from Amazon

It does things an air fryer can only dream of.

Barring that, a deep Dutch oven will work perfectly for frying in larger amounts of oil.

Corn Dogs

The pinnacle of state fair foods from coast to coast, corn dogs are really not that hard to make at home. Plus, you get to choose whatever hot dog (or hot dog alternative) you want. And you can make these up to two weeks ahead and freeze them, to insure against future late-night cravings. See our guide on how to make corn dogs—with four different recipes, including one for cheese hounds.

Funnel Cake

If a corn dog is the savory king of state fair foods, funnel cake is the sweet queen. You can’t pass up either, but you can customize your fried dough too. Get our Cinnamon Funnel Cake recipe, for instance (similar to a popular Disney dessert, with the addition of dulce de leche), or try this more traditional Funnel Cake recipe topped with whipped cream and berries (or whatever else you want).

French Fries

OK, these are more boardwalk food than state fair, but anything fried technically falls under that umbrella. And though this is a tamer option than many stunt foods found at fairs (fried butter or fried Kool-Aid, anyone?), it’s an all-time classic that’s well worth making at home. Get our French Fries recipe.

Here's a look at this year's State Fair of Texas fried finalists:

  • Chicken-fried lobster with Champagne gravy: Concessionaire Abel Gonzales dreamt up a "seafood spread," says the fair, of breaded and fried lobster tail served with lemon-butter Champagne gravy. (And yes: The gravy actually has Champagne, from France, in it.) Whereas fried lobster used to be a delicacy at fine-dining restaurants such as Dallas' Fearing's, now it will be available outside, from a State Fair of Texas street vendor.
  • Cowboy corn crunch: In one bite, you'll get sweet corn, jalapeño, cream cheese and bacon, "rolled up like a tater tot and fried," says Isaac Rousso, whose fried Cuban roll won "best taste" last year. Rousso has two finalists in the Big Tex Choice Award -- a rarity.
  • Fried alligator: Remember when an alligator ate a Texas man? Now you can be a Texas man (or woman) eating alligator. Concessionaire and chef Cassy Jones combines alligator meat with Monterey Jack cheese, jalapeños, onions and garlic, all deep fried. Each morsel is served atop shoestring fries and drizzled in remoulade. It's Jones' first time as a Big Tex Choice Awards finalist, though she's been serving her famous fried collard greens at the fair for years.
  • Fernie's Holy Moly Carrot Cake: This sweet treat is cinnamon bread, flattened and lined with carrot cake, raisins and carrots, then rolled. The pastry gets coated in cream cheese and finally breaded with sweet ingredients such as graham crackers and nutmeg. The dessert is named for concessionaire Christi Erpillo's mom, Fernie. Erpillo goes by @thefryqueen and is famous for her deep-fried peaches and cream, the fair's "best taste" winner in 2009.
  • Fried beer-battered buffalo: You've never had fried buffalo at the State Fair of Texas before. Concessionaire James Barrera is glad to be back with his first finalist dish since he was a Big Tex Choice Awards winner in 2005 for fried ice cream. His new dish is ground buffalo coated in Pequin chili pepper, crusted in Corn Nuts and fried in Shiner Bock batter. It comes topped with bacon dust -- or "magic dust," as Barrera puts it -- and chipotle cream dipping sauce.
  • Lone Star pork handle: The handle part? That's the bone that you hold to eat this fried pork chop with bourbon barbecue glaze. It comes from Justin Martinez, creator of 2014's "most creative" item, funnel cake beer.
  • Pretzel-crusted pollo queso: Concessionaire Allan Weiss takes shredded chicken and combines it with cream cheese, Monterey Jack cheese, bacon, cilantro and Sriracha, then fries it. It comes with ranch dressing. (Because ranch.)
  • Smoky bacon margarita: The only drink on the list, Rousso's margarita is mostly not fried. It's a traditional margarita, made for 21 and up only. The fried part comes in with the bacon crumbles. ("Of course the bacon is fried," Rousso says. He's a veteran of the fried food contest.)

All of the new finalists will be available for purchase at the State Fair of Texas, which runs Sept. 25 through Oct. 18 in the Fair Park neighborhood of Dallas.

Prices aren't yet available for the dishes we'll report soon on how much that fried lobster will cost -- in addition to prices of the others.

One will be crowned the best-tasting new fried food at a special competition at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 30. A second will receive the "most creative" title, an honor bestowed upon fried bubblegum (2011), fried beer (2010) and fried latte (2007), to name a few.

Judges include Dallas Mavericks player Devin Harris, former Dallas Cowboys player Drew Pearson, YouTuber Dan Rodo, chef John Tesar and Dallas Councilwoman Tiffinni Young.

Fairgoers who want to sample all the fried finalists on Aug. 30 can buy tickets for $100 online. One of the audience members will be selected, randomly, as a judge. Consider it the ultimate battle of the bulge.

Find a full calendar of of State Fair events here.

11 State Fair Foods You Can Make at Home

State fair food immediately conjures images of fried food and things on sticks…and fried things on sticks. Most of the edible wonders encountered at the average fairground are greasy, crispy, and super salty or super sweet (sometimes both). They’re not every-day treats, is what we’re saying—but they’re not out of reach when the carnival’s packed up and left town, either.

Whether you get a corn dog craving mid-winter that those freezer aisle specimens just won’t satisfy, or you’re missing out on your favorite funnel cake during the summer of social distancing, you can recreate all your favorite state fair grub at home with these recipes. Bonus: There’s a lot of overlap with boardwalk food faves too (but saltwater taffy and fudge are in their own categories).

You won’t have to break out the deep fryer for all of these, but if there was ever a time to invest in one, it’s now.

Presto FryDaddy Electric Deep Fryer, $31.99 from Amazon

It does things an air fryer can only dream of.

Barring that, a deep Dutch oven will work perfectly for frying in larger amounts of oil.

Corn Dogs

The pinnacle of state fair foods from coast to coast, corn dogs are really not that hard to make at home. Plus, you get to choose whatever hot dog (or hot dog alternative) you want. And you can make these up to two weeks ahead and freeze them, to insure against future late-night cravings. See our guide on how to make corn dogs—with four different recipes, including one for cheese hounds.

Funnel Cake

If a corn dog is the savory king of state fair foods, funnel cake is the sweet queen. You can’t pass up either, but you can customize your fried dough too. Get our Cinnamon Funnel Cake recipe, for instance (similar to a popular Disney dessert, with the addition of dulce de leche), or try this more traditional Funnel Cake recipe topped with whipped cream and berries (or whatever else you want).

French Fries

OK, these are more boardwalk food than state fair, but anything fried technically falls under that umbrella. And though this is a tamer option than many stunt foods found at fairs (fried butter or fried Kool-Aid, anyone?), it’s an all-time classic that’s well worth making at home. Get our French Fries recipe.

Why All Southerners Love the State Fair

Hint: The candy apples and fried Twinkies don't hurt.

What is it about this annual assemblage of please-let-em-hold-together rides, championship bovines, blue-ribbon quilts, pies, jellies, and jams, and deep-fried everything that captures our hearts and imaginations? We asked our Facebook Brain Trust to weigh in.

"I love the way a state fair transitions from day to night," writes Amanda. "It&aposs like two different experiences!" (Amanda, by the way, loves EVERYTHING about the fair, from the funnelꃊkes to "all the gunk on the bottom of your shoes when you leave." Now that&aposs a fan, ladies and gentlemen.)

Lighting is key to the best state fairs. Remember your first sight of those spinning, blinking, sparkling colors against an early evening sky when you were a kid, with the Ferris wheel as the centerpiece and the midway beckoning you to try your luck at an endless string of relatively unwinnable games in hopes of taking home a prize? OhmygoshIlovethefair.

A dash of state fair comedy never hurts. "When I was little, our favorite was Bozo the clown, who sat in one of those dunking booths and heckled the crowd relentlessly," writes reader Katsy. "We would watch him for the longest, while my dad laughed and laughed."

"I remember a carnival barker guessing everyone&aposs weight as they walked by (took the long way around that one)," writes Kelly, a transplanted Southerner recalling her state fair days from NYC.

The rides are a given draw. But as much as we all loved the Scrambler, Tilt-a-Whirl, merry-round, bumper cars, and that strange centrifugal force ride that spun fast enough to pin riders against the inner wall (where they hoped to remain when the bottom dropped out)𠅊s much as we loved all that—the food has always been nine-tenths of the fair. Florida reader Teresa said it for all of y&aposall: "I love the smell of deep-fried sweet food. Everywhere."

We&aposve stood in line for funnel cakes, fried Oreos, and Polish sausage dogs candy apples, caramel apples, and cotton candy fries with vinegar served in a cone and all kinds of fried stuff on a stick.

Texas being an all-that-and-then-some kind of place, the Texas state fair takes carnival food to a whole new level (picture Texas Cream Corn Casserole Fritters and Southern Fried Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo Balls). Texas fair goers swear by the famous Corny Dog (which, they will quickly tell you, is NOT the same thing as an ordinary corn dog).

And what about the exhibits—the photo contests and home ec demos the 4-H kids with their well-groomed, well-behaved Holsteins the chickens and rabbits and pigs—oh my! (There was always one especially portly pig to wow the crowd with his girth.)

One last thing you had to love about the fair—the excitement of standing in line at an old-fashioned ticket booth and waiting for Mama or Daddy to buy enough of those little rectangular paper tickets for you to ride your favorite "JUST ONE MORE TIME—PUH-LEEEEEEASE. "

Come to think of it, that&aposs probably the best part of the state fair—grown-ups with cash. And now it&aposs our turn.

WATCH: How to Make Apple Cider Fritters

They&aposre crispy and sweet and fried golden brown. These tasty little globes would be perfect state fair food, right up there with funnel cakes and candy apples.

Deep-fried butter

No, don't cringe! Just hear us out. The idea of deep-fried butter is certainly an artery-clogging nightmare for anyone who cares about their health in the least, but we're not saying you should eat it all the time. But you should, however, give it a try.

It debuted at the 2009 State Fair of Texas, because of course it did. It's not just a stick of fried butter, it's actually butter that's been whipped until it's light and fluffy, then frozen and coated in a layer of dough. It's only then that it's deep-fried, and it's heavenly. Don't think of it as biting into a stick of butter, thick of it as a dough ball with a soft, melty, buttery center. You do like buttery, delicious, biscuits and croissants, right? It's actually sort of similar, with the kind of crunch you only get from something that's fried. See — it's not as insane as you thought, right?

Best food at this year's State Fair of Texas? Fried Jell-O and cookie fries, judges say

In a food contest that has defied science with oddities such as fried beer, the State Fair of Texas' annual Big Tex Choice Awards is taking a step back in time. Fried Jell-O, a simple dish of cherry Jell-O battered and dipped in the fryer, then topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream and a cherry, was named Best Taste at an awards ceremony Sunday at Dallas' Fair Park.

"I never thought a 10-cent bag of Jell-O would put me in the spotlight," said Ruth Hauntz, who, at 82 years old, is the second-oldest concessionaire at the State Fair of Texas. It's her first time winning a Big Tex Choice Award, though she has operated Ruth's Tamale House at the fair since 1987.

A panel of six judges — five local celebrities and one audience member — chose State Fair Cookie Fries as Most Creative. Serial concessionaire Isaac Rousso's crinkle-cut desserts come in chocolate chip or sprinkles flavor and are served with strawberry or chocolate dipping sauce. Rousso is the man behind award-winning dishes such as the fried Cuban roll and the smoky bacon margarita.

Hundreds of State Fair of Texas superfans tasted all eight foods in a pre-State Fair event that cost $100 and benefits a Texas college scholarship program. Most of the judges were sure to skip lunch before gorging on so many rich dishes.

"I'm just going to take my hat off and loosen my belt," joked Don Gay, a world-champion bull rider and a judge at the event. He was joined on the judging panel by Deep Fried Fit blogger Mai Lyn Ngo, Dallas chef Kent Rathbun, 97.1 The Eagle on-air personality Dan O'Malley, Dallas City Council member Tiffinni Young and audience member Jon Gonzalez.

The Big Tex Choice Awards are one of today's most well-known events at the 130-year-old State Fair of Texas, even though the food contest is just 12 years new. If you can believe it, most of the lifespan of the State Fair of Texas did not include culinary oddities such as fried Coke, fried butter and the infamous fried bubblegum. In fact, the Fletcher family didn't sell its first corny dog until 1942.

Back then, an original corny dog cost 15 cents. Today, it costs $5 in coupons. Most other fried delicacies at the fair go for $5 to $10. Last year's chicken-fried lobster with Champagne gravy cost a record-breaking 60 coupons, or $30. Absurd? Concessionaire Abel Gonzales occasionally sold out of the crispy crustaceans.

Although the State Fair has made headlines for its surprising foods, being fried isn't a requirement. The entrees don't even have to be "food": In 2014, concessionaire Justin Martinez debuted funnel-cake ale and won Most Creative. The next year, Rousso's smoky bacon margarita won the same award.

For some of the Texans who enter the Big Tex Choice Awards, concocting State Fair foods is a year-round task, even though the State Fair of Texas runs just 24 days, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 23 this year in Dallas.

Clint Probst, whose fried chicken and dumplings was a finalist, keeps a running list year-round of foods he'd like to enter into the Big Tex Choice Awards. One year, Probst served a whopping 40,000 servings from his booth. The State Fair is big business, he says.

For serious fairgoers Anthony Vecchione and Lynette Page, tasting all eight is part of the State Fair of Texas experience.

"She's a native Texan, I'm from New York, but I got here as fast as I could," Vecchione says. They have made it a tradition to sample all the new foods since 2006.

Take it from these seasoned foodies: Gonzales' fried cookie dough, which is not a new item, remains the best concessions item at the State Fair of Texas.

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